Once upon a time, I had two Canadian snow birds as neighbors. And every morning, they pinched my newspaper! That meant I usually didn’t get to see it until after I returned home from the lab where I was working on my PhD.
Snow birds are people who make the trek to a warmer climate to escape from the snow in their usual environment. They’re often retired. These particular snow birds were two elderly sisters whose husbands had passed away and who had decided to spend some time in Florida.
Then something happened.
One of the sisters changed her ticket and returned to Canada earlier than planned. It turned out that the other sister was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and it was suddenly progressing. She had been randomly accusing people – including her sister – of theft and other unkind deeds and it simply got to be too much for the other sister, understandably.
When people have Alzheimer’s and can’t remember where they’ve left things, and what day it is, it is not that surprising that they think someone has stolen something from them when they can’t find what they are looking for – because it’s in another place or in another time period.
So, the landlord we had in common (Paul, a guy I knew from another setting) and I started looking after the lady. I discovered that merely keeping track of the days for her was greatly reassuring to her, but also how draining it can be to look after someone with Alzheimer’s. It requires your complete attention, and a lot of patience. It is not something you can do “on the side”, while doing something else at the same time. It requires dedication.
The landlord got in touch with the airline and arranged that the ticket date got changed and that someone would ensure that the woman in question wouldn’t return to Nova Scotia, where she used to live, but travel to the city in which she was now living. It got critical at some point when the airline asked whether the woman was actually able to travel on her own.
And I called the woman’s daughter, to keep her up to date and liaise with her too.
The woman – let’s call her Peggy – was actually a wonderful person who used to be very happy and who was also quite aware of what happening to her, which saddened me. Looking after her wasn’t nowhere as bad as I may have made it sound above. She was often lucid, and helping her keep track of time actually also seemed to help her stay lucid, because it eased the stress on her.
There was a second critical moment, though, when she arranged to have money wired from her account in Canada to a local bank. I informed one of the professors that I was going with her to the bank, and why. Just in case. And at the bank I kept my distance from the counter, on purpose.
But everything went fine.
For some reason, Peggy trusted me, even though I was in fact a complete stranger. Not even once, not even for a second, did she become suspicious or distrustful about me in the days I looked after her, and I was very grateful for that.
It all happened decades ago on another continent, and I am sure she has passed away by now, so I don’t feel I am violating her privacy by posting the photos Paul took of the two of us at the airport. Yep, we’d gotten coffee. I am holding the coffee in that image on the left.
I was reminded of it this afternoon when I got a phone call related to another woman who needs to have a practical problem solved. That’s what Alzheimer’s is like in the beginning. A practical problem that others can help with.
Last week, I went shopping with an elderly woman in an electric wheelchair. I had spotted her in front of a busy shop with narrow aisles, clearly debating whether to go in or not, as the shop would close within 45 minutes. I offered to go into the shop with her and she accepted. I checked and cleared aisles, scouted products for her.
Heck, why not? I wasn’t going anywhere at the time and it didn’t even interrupt anything at all. (It’s important to give the other person enough space in such a situation, and I think I did that sufficiently too.) No, it wasn’t something I’ve done before. It was a spur-of-the-moment heck-why-not thing. A here-is-a-practical-problem-I-can-help-with-right-now thing.